“These are a few of my favorite things”

I’m busy packing up and getting ready for Uganda this week. As I’ve increasingly turned my attention toward my upcoming trip, I’ve been thinking of all the things I’m anticipating. Because I’ve studied in Uganda a few times before, I have developed a long list of favorites, but I’ve chosen just a few to share with you. I’ll no doubt indulge in more detail about each of these in the coming months, so please stay tuned.

Friendship: The Ugandans I’ve met are among the kindest, friendliest, and most selfless people I have ever encountered. I’ve made friends who define the term “strong work ethic,” whose tireless optimism inspires me, and whose innovation and sense of humor never cease to amaze.

A dear friend, Prossy, and her baby Sophie. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.











Nature: Uganda has offered some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Though the national parks are beautiful, one need not visit them to encounter nature on display. The beauty of nature is in the smallest details, sometimes in the most unexpected places, if you take a moment to look.

Beauty in grand form: an elephant at Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Photo: Jack Lester.








Beauty in the smallest details: a cassava leaf eater. Photo: Jack Lester.









Science: The experience of conducting field research can be described in many ways. At the best times, it’s thrilling, uplifting, and jaw-droppingly beautiful. At the worst times, it’s frustrating, exhausting, and hope-draining. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to feeling both—sometimes in the same day. No matter what it is, though, it cannot be described as boring.

Surveying a forest fragment with the help of colleagues. Photo: Jack Lester.









Food: Oh, the food! Do you want to taste the creamiest avocados and the sweetest pineapples? Would you like to experience what cocoa tastes like straight from the pod? How about the taste of jackfruit, the world’s largest (and my personal favorite) tree fruit? Come visit Uganda!

A jackfruit tree. Photo: Jack Lester.










Immersion: One of my favorite experiences about traveling is the feeling of being completely out of my element and having no idea what is going on. This may seem like a strange assertion, but it’s true. There are few times in adult life when we must completely submit to an utter lack of control and understanding—with the exception of going to the DMV, perhaps. To feel overwhelmed, delighted, and immersed in a completely foreign experience is to experience the joy of traveling. I hope never to lose this.

A sense of wonder is one of the greatest joys of traveling. At Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.











This post was originally published at Scientific American

How Technology Can Save Great Apes: A Pragmatist’s Top Ten List

As a PhD Candidate studying chimpanzees in fragmented forests, I’ve often brainstormed with like-minded friends about potential solutions to threats facing great apes. Technology is usually interwoven into these potential solutions. Though there are no perfect answers, there are promising possibilities. Here’s my top ten list of realistic ways technology can be used to save great apes.

1. #GreatApeConservation #SocialMedia: The significance of social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter cannot be overstated. Increasing awareness brings greater personal investment in conservation. For example, this tragic story about an orangutan was shared perhaps thousands of times through social media in recent weeks.

2. Call Me Maybe: Cell phones are ubiquitous in great ape range countries (see this recent article for more on their influence in Africa). They can assist education and information sharing, while text donation programs can be used for fundraising, as with this current effort by the Jane Goodall Institute and collaborators.

3. Engaging Youth: Interactive games, as well as HD and 3D movies, engage children and bring great apes to life onscreen. The recent movies Born to Be Wild and Chimpanzee are great examples. The earlier children learn about conservation issues, the more invested they may be later in life.

Educational outreach with secondary school children in Uganda. Photo: Brittany Fallon.








4. Drones of a Different Feather: Small drones have been tested for use in conservation. See this article explaining how.

5. Molecular Advances: Recent advances in molecular primatology greatly assist in monitoring great ape populations. Genetic data yield population size estimates and provide vital information on gene flow. Indeed, my PhD thesis relies on such data. Here’s an example of one application.

Collecting and labeling a chimpanzee fecal sample for genetic analysis. Photo: Jack Lester.









6. Great Primate-Saving (GPS) Technology: Though GPS actually stands for Global Positioning System, it is a critical tool for scientists monitoring great ape populations. In addition, already-existing smartphone apps allow for geo-tagging the locations of celebrities. This same innovation may allow people in great ape range countries to geo-tag ape sightings, thereby helping conservationists track populations.

7. Ape Trek: The Next Generation: Scientists also have a myriad of other tools at their disposal to facilitate research. From digital data recorders to laser range finders, primatologists can collect data quickly and efficiently nowadays. I can almost hear my advisor saying, “You know, back when I was in grad school, we had to…”

8. Better Alternatives: Primary great ape threats include bushmeat hunting and habitat destruction. Technologically advanced alternatives can abate these threats, however. For example, although palm oil production has led to the large-scale destruction of orangutan habitat, palm oil alternatives are possible.

9. Medical Advances: The U.S. is in the difficult position of supporting ape conservation while still performing invasive biomedical research on chimpanzees. Advances in medicine may soon make invasive research completely obsolete, however. See this great story on the development of microchips that mimic human organs. (Cool, huh?!)

10.  Ecotourism Made Easy: Online travel reservations and the modern ease of travel make it simpler than ever to visit great ape habitats. This is critical since ecotourism, if managed well, is one of the best and most realistic options for helping conserve great ape populations.

Two weeks and counting…

In a mere two weeks, I’ll head back to Uganda for a year to collect data for my PhD thesis. For one year, I’ll collect data on chimpanzees in forest fragments, small patches of forest that remain amid a sea of human-altered landscape. These are not your Discovery Channel-variety chimpanzees. They do not live beneath a lush rainforest canopy. They cannot be followed at close range by researchers in khaki pants. They refuse to be photographed by excited tourists with long telephoto lenses. Instead, they eke out an existence in small remnant forest patches, sometimes stealing food from their human neighbors, darting traffic along busy dirt roads, or interrupting village conversations with their choruses of calls.

Sugar cane harvesters watch as chimpanzees cross the road to a sugar cane field. Photo: Maureen McCarthy.

I was first introduced to these chimpanzees in 2007. As a volunteer field assistant for a PhD student (two years before beginning my own path toward a PhD), I was assigned to collect data on chimpanzees in a small forest patch. Though I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when going to Uganda for the first time, I knew chimpanzees. I had studied them for my master’s thesis. Granted, the chimpanzees who supplied my master’s thesis data at Central Washington University had been raised by humans and used American Sign Language, but how different could these Ugandan chimpanzees really be? As it turns out, they were very different indeed. They ate a very different diet than my captive chimpanzee friends, used some very different gestures to communicate, and seemed to live rather elusive lives. It was an altogether drastically different lifestyle than that of the chimpanzees I’d come to know. Frustratingly, there were many unanswered questions about their lives. How exactly did they survive in this small forest fragment? How did their lives compare to those of their brothers and sisters in large, expansive forests? How long could they continue to live in this habitat?

Though a few researchers and organizations have attempted to answer some of these questions, there is still much work to be done. Indeed, most studies of free-living chimpanzees have been conducted at a handful of long-term field sites in protected areas, like Jane Goodall’s famous chimpanzees of Gombe National Park, Tanzania. In two short weeks, however, I’ll have the opportunity to help find some answers about this population of understudied Ugandan forest fragment chimpanzees, which may measure up to several hundred. Unfortunately, they are not the only members of their species to live in an increasingly deforested habitat. Though chimpanzees have traditionally lived across a broad swath of equatorial Africa, they have become more and more isolated to smaller areas of degraded and threatened habitats throughout this geographic range. Habitat destruction, along with the bushmeat trade (the consumption of animals like chimpanzees for their meat), is a primary threat to the survival of endangered chimpanzees. Their struggles are palpable and growing.

It is, then, with great anticipation and a little anxiety that I’ve been planning this extended fieldtrip halfway around the world. Though this will mark my fourth trip to Uganda—I’ve been back a couple times to collect pilot data as a PhD student—I’m still not an expert. Now, though, I’ve learned to embrace my ignorance and expect the unexpected. You never know what you might find, which is what’s so thrilling about science (and life). I can’t wait to share what I learn with you.

This post was originally published at Scientific American